Housesteads Roman Fort opens new museum as part of major redevelopment project

By Ruth Hazard | 30 March 2012

A picture of a man looking at a stone with carvings engraved on it
Senior Curator Kevin Booth with a Roman altar from the exhibition
Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum, Northumberland, Open from 31 March

Bernard Hill may be famous for his roles in Titanic, Gandhi and the Lord of the Rings, but for his latest project he has swapped Hollywood for Housesteads; the Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Hill acts as narrator in a film exploring the history behind Britain’s most complete Roman Fort using aerial footage taken by York-based production company, ay-pe, and Flying TV.

The film forms part of an exhibition at the site’s new museum, transformed in a massive redevelopment project by the English Heritage, National Trust and Northumberland National Park Authority.

A celebration of Roman life at Housesteads, the display is a vibrant reminder of the remarkable legacy the triumphant Romans left behind.

“I know that the landscapes of Hadrian’s Wall have inspired many a film director before and have been used as the backdrop in a number of famous movies so I was delighted when this opportunity arose to voice the film in the new museum,” said Bernard Hill.

“I hope my narration helps to set the scene and bring the story of Roman Britain to life for visitors to Housesteads in years to come.”

An aerial picture of a roman stone fort surrounded by grass field
An aerial shot of the Housesteads Roman Fort
The museum also houses a new collection of Roman artefacts, including the winged statue of Victory, which is making its return to the fort for the first time since the 19th Century.

A classical sculpture dating back to the 2nd Century AD, Victory symbolises the ancient Roman conquerers of the North and was first recorded by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1725 who found her lying in the landscape around the fort.

The landowner gave Victory to the Society of Antiquarians in Newcastle in the 19th Century but after surface cleaning and conservation work by the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums conservators, the statue has made the journey back home to Housesteads.

“Back when the Romans inhabited the fort, the statue to Victory is likely to have once stood on either the gateway to the fort or in the headquarters; conveying the military might of the Romans to all who saw her,” said Kevin Booth, Senior Curator for English Heritage in the North.

”Today, English Heritage is extremely proud to have her on loan from the Great North Museum.

“Returning to her original home at Housesteads, she will stand at the entrance to the new museum greeting visitors to the fort, just as she did thousands of years ago.”

The exhibition also boasts a Roman altar to Cocidius, the local "Geordie God" who was worshipped by the ancient northerners in England before the Romans arrived.

Cocidius proved to be so popular he was adopted by the in-coming Romans who recognised his similarity to deities of their own.

This included Silvanus, the god of woods and fields and Mars the god of war, hunting and military might.

A picture of a man outside a brick museum building
The curator outside the new museum in Northumberland
Carvings and inscriptions to Cocidius have been found along the Wall which English Heritage historian, Paul Pattison, sees as testament to his significance.

“Cocidius was an important local god in Roman times,” he explained. “Life for the Roman soldiers at Housesteads Fort, right on the edge of the Empire, was tough and they believed strongly that powerful deities could help them in their everyday lives.

“It’s not surprising that soldiers worshipped Cocidius.”
The altar featured in the new exhibition at Housesteads bears an inscription which translates as: “To Cocidius and the guardian Spirit of the Headquarters, Valerius, a soldier of the Sixth Victorious Loyal and Faithful Legion, fulfilled his vow.”
Objects from all aspects of life in the fort can also be seen including tools used to maintain the buildings together with medical equipment employed in the hospital on site.
Outside, a series of interpretation panels help visitors understand the network of buildings as they explore the fort. 

”As the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain, Housesteads is one of the most important places on the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site,” says Liz Page, Historic Properties Director for English Heritage in the North.

“The new museum serves as an ideal introduction to the fort, with visitors able to wander through the remains of the barracks and with the help of new interpretation, imagine what life would have been like in the fortress 2,000 years ago.”

The project is phase one of the improvements to the visitor facilities at Housesteads. Phase 2 will include remodelling the visitor centre, toilets, shop and café towards the end of 2012.

  • Open: Daily from 10am-6pm.
    Admission: Adult: £6.00, Concession: £5.40, Child: £3.60.
    Under 5s, English Heritage and National Trust Members: Free.
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